Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Is There Soprano Sax Discrimination in Higher Ed?

Recently I was asked if I felt that university music programs discriminate against soprano players. In my experience, I haven’t found universities to be overtly discriminating, nor have I found them to be particularly accommodating, either. Okay, they're not out there perpetuating Jim Crow like prejudice against soprano players. Thank goodness we don't have to sit in the back of the section. But they're hardly creating a soprano-friendly environment by any stretch of the imagination.

When I went to grad school back in 2006, one of the reasons I chose
Purchase College was because they didn't have a problem with me only playing the soprano. Students had the option of playing in the big band or a small ensemble. And fortunately the ensembles were not instrument-specific, so the situation was friendlier towards an oddity like myself--which is not always the case.

One of the first schools I considered, which shall remain nameless, was one of those typical “un-accommodating” type of schools that I mentioned earlier.  In fact, during the early stages of trying to find the right school at which to get my degree—which I knew was not going to be easy since I had recently acquired a full-time teaching position--I was having a conversation with one of the key faculty members at this school about their program and at one point I began inquiring about their ensembles. And when I asked about me playing only the soprano saxophone in the ensemble he became somewhat annoyed and said to me in a very condescending voice, "I hope you don't that we're going to let you come in here and just play the soprano." Insinuating that in doing so, I would in some way be "getting over," or even worse, jeopardizing the integrity of their program. Realizing the hopelessness of the situation, I politely ended the conversation and never spoke to him nor inquired about his program again.

What I learned from the conversation is that there is a lack of understanding and compassion for the uniqueness of the soprano and those who play it.  Most fail to realize that its depth lies far beyond just being difficult to play in tune. There are layers to the soprano that only a specialist can understand. The soprano is like a sonic onion whose layers can only be peeled away through hard work, time and devotion. And what lies beneath can be fully enjoyed by all if we are allowed to just do what we are meant to do--play the soprano.

When I asked Toronto-based soprano saxophonist Kayla Milmine, who got her master's degree from a university in Montreal, not long ago, if she faced any type of discrimination because she only plays the soprano. She had this to say:

"I think about that often - why alto and tenor are so much more popular than soprano and baritone. In school, playing in big band, you pretty much have to double, so I did for a couple years. I was lucky that there were also other ensembles available to me that were more open to having me just play soprano. By my last two years I just refused to play the alto and tenor because it just didn't make sense anymore. By then teachers and students knew me as a soprano player, and knew I wouldn't play the others, and respected that enough. I think if a student wants to focus on soprano, they should stand their ground. I think if you're serious then people will respect that. It is unfortunate that the soprano isn't seen as a primary instrument in the saxophone world. We almost have to see it as an instrument separate from the other saxes."

Kayla brought up a very interesting point, which is that we have to see the soprano as "an instrument separate from the other saxes." This is something I've pondered often. In fact, when I see someone on the subway with a tenor sax gig bag, I don't feel I have anymore in common with him or her than I would someone carrying a trumpet. And a lot of that stems from my approach having little to do
with playing the saxophone in the traditional sense. In a recent tweet, I said this: "Even though I only play the soprano, little of what I do has anything to do with the soprano." That tweet might sound somewhat esoteric on the surface, but beneath its meaning is an underlying truth that rings true with me and many other soprano saxophone specialists. Soprano players tend to be artistic to a fault. They are more concerned with creating a box than existing within one. Steve Lacy was the father of this paradigm.

Regarding pursuing a music degree in higher education as a soprano player, Kayla had this to say:

"I did have teachers tell me that if I focused as much on tenor I would get more gigs, etc. I thought about it a bit, but by that point I was too committed to soprano. Also, I am not interested in the types of gigs they were talking about; cruise ships, overseas hotels, etc."

I certainly can relate to this sentiment.  When I first switched to the soprano, someone once told me I would never be able to play in the Village Vanguard Orchestra—as though this would be a career changer. People often don't realize that soprano players do what they do because they aren't looking to travel the same path as the other members of the saxophone family, only up an octave.

In our Facebook exchange,  Kayla brought up a third important point:

"The average non music educated person I meet at gigs usually don't even know what my instrument is! So if students were more encouraged to play soprano, in the real world, most people wouldn't even know the difference."

And this puts it all in perspective. Because at the end of the day, the instrument doesn't even matter. It's all about one's musical vision. It's what you do with it. I think I summed it pretty well with the title of a tune I recorded with my band Global Unity. "It's Not the Size of the Horn, It's How You Swing It!" Unfortunately, people mistook this title as being about everything but the soprano. And as Kayla pointed out, in the real world, most people can't tell the difference between a soprano and a clarinet or between an alto and a tenor. The bottom line is that you're either saying something or you're not. You're either reaching people or you're not. This is something that institutions need to understand: Which is that they need to nurture musical voices, not musical instruments.

Now the whole reason I even started thinking about these things is because I got an e-mail from a young, up and coming soprano player who was upset because he auditioned for a university music program in Denmark and received really low
marks. And when he inquired why his marks were so low, he was told that he would have had a better grade had he played the same thing on either alto or tenor.

I wasn't there, so I don't know how the audition actually went. But I've never
heard of anyone being so openly biased against someone's instrument--especially
an instrument that is such an important part of jazz history. The soprano was at the
forefront of the New Orleans jazz era with Sidney Bechet; the cool jazz era with Steve Lacy and Lucky Thompson; the free jazz era with John Coltrane; the fusion jazz with Wayne Shorter; and the smooth jazz era with Grover Washington Jr. This is an instrument that's been around. It's not like the musical faculty was listening to an instrument rarely heard in jazz, like the bagpipes.

Typically when students ask why they received low marks, they're giving tangible reasons such as "you had difficulty navigating the chord changes," or "you had pitch problems," or "bad rhythm"--things that one could work on and invariably improve upon. But when you get into the area of judging someone's instrumental identity, then it starts to sound personal, or just plain old misinformed. And to add insult to injury, when this soprano player asked his teacher why this happened to him, the teacher responded with, "No one respects you if you only play the soprano." Talking about a one-two combination to the right jaw!

When he asked me for advice about this situation,  I said this to him in an email:

 "I'm sorry that you had to go through this. There is certainly discrimination against the soprano and soprano players.  It's often looked at a doubler's instrument. But it's up to us as soprano players to prove the instrument's validity. And the only way to do that is through great work. This is something that cannot be disputed. We're held to a different standard and consequently, we have to hold ourselves to a different standard. Meaning, we have to create our own path. We can blend in to a certain extent, but ultimately, we have to do our own thing, our way."

Being the optimist that I am, I don't imagine that incidents such as this are widespread. But they do exist. I've experienced them first hand. And in all honesty, since universities are the training ground for many young players before being set loose into the workforce, I think that they need to recognize that soprano specialists are a growing minority, and it would be irresponsible of them as institutions of higher learning not recognize and accommodate them. I'm pretty confident that if universities take the first step in recognizing us as a growing demographic, the general jazz public will soon follow suit. As I said before, I am an optimist.


  1. Sam, I will confirm that you are, in fact, an oddity!

  2. You've been talking to wife again, I see!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I graduated with soprano only. No problems, but I had to prove some extra expressive qualities and of course the access to the conservatory big bang was totally neglected.

  5. Stefano, it seems like not having access to the big band is common. But I'm glad your experience was relatively devoid of discrimination.

  6. Steve Lacy, Sidney Bechet, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Brandford Marsalis, Sam Newsome, Jamison Williams, Gianni Mimmo, Harri Sjostrom, Jane Ira Bloom and many many more are guilty that now I love soprano sax. thanks Masters.


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